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Hydrogen Plays a Key Role in Decarbonization

by Katrina FritzMarch 28, 2023
Complementary fuels, technologies, and strategies are needed to achieve net zero goals. CHBC Executive Director Katrina Fritz shares why hydrogen is crucial.
Kristina Fritz, California Hydrogen Business Council.
Katrina Fritz is Executive Director of the California Hydrogen Business Council.

In recent years, state energy and regulatory agencies have modeled plans that conclude hydrogen is required to achieve deep decarbonization targets. Air pollution continues to worsen across the U.S. with hydrogen and fuel cells seen as part of the answer. For example, as a one-to-one replacement for diesel powered vehicles, equipment, and generators, hydrogen fuel cells have significant potential to decrease the negative air quality impacts this diesel equipment causes and eliminate their carbon emissions.  

With California’s current grid reliability challenges and need for more power generation capacity – coupled with the state’s continuing “overdemand” – all energy and mobility solutions must be brought to bear. National Lab studies have demonstrated the grid infrastructure required to charge battery electric vehicles of all sizes. The use of fuel cell electric vehicles, fueled by hydrogen, avoid further compounding grid reliability challenges.  The California Air Resources Board recent Hydrogen Station Self-Sufficiency Report  determined that an additional $300 million investment in hydrogen infrastructure, coupled with existing incentives like the Low Carbon Fuel Standard,  would lead to financial self-sufficiency of a fuel cell electric vehicle and hydrogen station network by 2030, avoiding additional upgrade costs and strain on the grid.

At the federal level, the multi-billion-dollar commitment to hydrogen and fuel cell programs in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Job Act (IIJA) has spurred a flurry of planning, project development, and investment in the hydrogen sector. States in every U.S. region have expressed support for project applications to the $8 billion Department of Energy hydrogen hub program. The awarded hubs will showcase production of hydrogen, distribution and delivery infrastructure, and broad end uses of hydrogen and fuel cells in the electricity, industrial, and transportation sectors.

Strong Support for Hydrogen

States from California to New York to Texas are committing significant funding and resources to support the development of these hydrogen hubs. The DOE and other agencies are launching additional energy manufacturing, clean electricity, zero-emission vehicle, and goods movement programs funded by the IIJA to further support hydrogen use alongside other clean energy technologies. Project developers and investors are simultaneously seeking guidance on the use of tax credits for hydrogen and fuel cells that came from the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

Hydrogen fuel cell big rig truck.

On the passenger light-duty vehicle side, Toyota and Hyundai continue to sell Mirai and Nexo hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in California. There are now over 15,471  fuel cell electric cars sold and leased in the U.S. In February, Honda announced a joint venture with General Motors to deliver a new fuel cell system not only for its light-duty vehicles but also for use in heavy-duty trucks, stationary power generation, and construction equipment. In early 2022, BMW announced its continued commitment to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles with on-road demonstration of the iX5 to begin in 2023. 

Traditional manufacturers of engines and heavy-duty vehicles are partnering with clean energy companies to rapidly bring fuel cell electric vehicles to market in high volume, heavily polluted transportation corridors, with the assistance of the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Program.  Already, on-road testing of fuel cell systems and vehicles made by Ballard Power Systems, Cummins, Hyzon Motors, Nikola Motors, and Toyota is underway. Off-road, the Port of Long Beach is working with Toyota and FuelCell Energy using a fuel cell to generate power, heat, and hydrogen, the latter used to fuel Toyota equipment at the port and Toyota Mirai vehicles coming off the ship. Byproduct water from the fuel cell’s hydrogen production is used to wash the cars.

Off Road and Materials Handling

Hydrogen fuel cell mining truck.

Presently, the largest throughput of hydrogen is in the off-road and materials handling sectors. In creating the first commercially viable market for hydrogen fuel cell technology, Plug Power has deployed more than 60,000 fuel cell systems and over 200 fueling stations, more than anyone else in the world, and is the largest buyer of liquid hydrogen. Plug customers have completed more than 55 million hydrogen fills into forklifts and other material handling equipment used in warehouses, including those operated by companies like Amazon and Walmart, showing the economic value of fuel cell powered forklifts. Contributing to their increased productivity throughput are advantages like rapid hydrogen refueling and a smaller overall footprint than battery electric counterparts that require space for chargers.

The State of California is considering the level of support needed for the required hydrogen fueling infrastructure to service all on-road fuel cell electric vehicles. Documents from the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership illustrate the fueling stations needed for light-duty passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks  that would create a refueling network for launching a self-sustaining market. This would serve to quickly decarbonize key transportation corridors and improve air quality in the urban, rural, and agricultural communities along these corridors.

Hydrogen Powers Clean Transit

Hydrogen fuel cell bus on street.

Public transit agencies have been operating or conducting real-world testing of hydrogen fuel cell buses in their fleets . Following operational bus trials, many agencies concluded that both battery and fuel cell electric buses are required. Among the benefits cited for fuel cell buses are lower operating costs, often due to avoiding the investment required for battery electric buses such as charging stations and the need to expand capacity at local electric substations. In addition, the longer range and greater power density of fuel cell electric vehicles can support transit operations that must deal with varied, hilly terrain and longer routes.

California currently has 66 fuel cell electric buses in service with another 100+ committed to be placed in operation. Many transit agencies are set to follow the pioneering efforts of Alameda-Contra Costa Transit and SunLine Transit with their fleets of fuel cell electric buses and hydrogen refueling infrastructure. Among these are California’s Foothill Transit, Orange County Transit, and Humboldt Transit. Outside California, Stark County Transit in Ohio and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia are committed to using hydrogen fuel cell buses to meet their service needs.

Hydrogen is here. Debates on energy resources should include discussion of best fit, rather than either-or. There is significant public and private recognition across the U.S that an all-of-the-above strategy is needed to meet our varied energy requirements and decarbonization goals, and hydrogen is poised to make an immediate and growing contribution to a global decarbonization strategy.

Katrina Fritz is the Executive Director of the California Hydrogen Business Council (CHBC).